The bitter aftertaste from Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit still lingers, although it wasn’t all sour. Each of the squad were afforded a three-week break away from rugby, and while they speak of that hiatus differently, many have come back evidently better players and, unlike counterparts in the Premiership and Top 14, mentally refreshed.
Even so, when the World Cup was recently brought up with Ryan Baird, he talks of it provoking “this sick feeling in my stomach, and it was just bringing it back up again, those memories of that last game.”
Nonetheless, he added: “I’ve learned from it. I’ve reflected. I had some lovely time after. I went up north, campervanning with my dog for a while and it gave me a great mental break to reflect.
“I was thinking before the World Cup what would success be? And, let’s say we won that match, we kept going, yes that’d be pretty successful. But how we developed as players and as people over that two/three month period. I developed so much as a player and as a person.
“I learned so much through heartaches of not being selected and through highs of winning matches against South Africa in Stade de France,” he said, having played 45 minutes in two appearances off the bench against Tonga and the Springboks.
Thoughtful and articulate, Baird reasoned: “Initially you can’t deem it a success but looking back after reflection, you can say: ‘Wow, I learned so much from that experience’. And I did, and I’m incredibly grateful for that opportunity.”
For four days after returning, Baird stewed on the disappointment. “The thought of playing rugby again was quite tough because you’ve given so much emotionally. Physically the body is fine but emotionally you’ve given so much to that tournament.”
But then he headed off with his four-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever, Mackenzie, picked up the camper van in Antrim and had five days of playing golf in sunshine.
“I had these crisp mornings, complete sun the whole time, playing Portrush, Portstewart, played St Pat’s up in Rosapenna and Sandy Hills. I was playing some of the best course in Ireland in perfect weather and I went fishing as well. It was incredible.
“Once I left Dublin I got a bit more grounded into what I had. I had my dog with me, I was fully healthy after the World Cup so I started to appreciate those things more.
“You appreciate that you’re a person first, not a rugby player first, and you can get sucked into that when you’re playing so much rugby and it’s all you’re surrounded by. It was really four or five days of a mental break. A new stimulus, didn’t talk or think about rugby.”
There’s been the added bonus of bringing his handicap down from 10 to seven. “I’m on the journey to scratch, it’ll probably be a couple of years,” he said, smiling. “I played St Pat’s right off the tips. It used to be 36 holes designed by Jack Nicklaus, then Tom Doak redesigned it and made it 18 hole.
“It’s incredible scenery. One of the holes you’re looking out on this bay, there’s a mountain range off to the left and a harbour to the right. You can’t beat it.”
“Who doesn’t want to work with the two-time World Cup winning coach?
“I love his defensive system. It’s leaning towards my athletic ability to be able to accelerate off the line, but do it repeatedly,” said Baird, revealing he watched Pieter Steph Du Toit closely.
“But I think if you look around Ireland we’re all incredible athletes and I think it really suits us to be using our athleticism to fly off the line, but with control, and put teams under pressure.”
Baird had a big game in the Sportsground a week ago, his athleticism in contesting the Connacht throw a significant factor in Leinster’s win and he admitted that he is using the World Cup as motivation.
“But it’s not letting that motivation get emotional. I think once emotion goes into it too much that’s when you lose rational thought and all your cognitive abilities and then you start flying out of line.
“But if you use it in the right ways to make you perform better, I think it’s brilliant. That’s what I’m doing. I’m understanding my work-ons, understanding what my actual strengths are as well and really kind of using them.
“For me restarts is a big one, kick chase, understand that I can actually use that as a point of difference. So 100 per cent I would have used any setback as motivation but in the right way.”
He uses a similar rationale about Leinster’s revenge mission in La Rochelle on Sunday.
“You can get too emotional about this and go ‘Oh my God, we’ve lost three in a row’. But this is round one of Champions Cup 2023/24 so we will put most emphasis on ourselves and our preparation.”
Baird cited the precision of Leinster’s drive for Ciarán Frawley’s match-winning try.
“That last sequence from scrum to one width to one width back and score was incredible skill execution, some great breakdown work, some great lines ran.
“That’s what we’ll focus on this week and if we can implement that incredible accuracy and detail that will get us to the right spot then it’ll come down to the mindset shift of trying to dominate them.
“Of course, it’s going to be in the back of our minds that we haven’t beaten them, but you want to find the balance of getting yourself in that right state of perfect skill execution but then also having the mindset to physically dominate teams.”